Chasing that Illusive Singapore Dream

Peter faces difficult choices. Peter who is a diabetic with a heart condition, barely makes enough money to pay the rent on the 3-Room HDB house that he is renting from a friend of his son, pay for transportation costs and to put food on the table for his family of five.

It is a constant struggle even though Peter works as an Administrative Assistant in Singapore Press Holdings and his wife works as an Administrative Assistant in a secondary school. Together, they bring home $1800 after CPF and loan deductions. Of this, they spend $1200 as rent, $400 for transportation costs and are left with a mere $200 to buy provisions and to put food on the table. Peter often have to scrimp to pay for the medicine he has to take for his diabetic condition. The medicine costs about $250, but he can only deduct $150 from Medisave and has to pay the remaining $100 in cash. Peter has 3 children, a son 22 doing his national service and two daughters aged 13 and 10 still in school.

His problems started in 2005, when he fractured his leg in a motorbike accident. His employers of ten years had to retrench him. As he was not able to service the mortgage loan that he had taken from the bank, he had to sell his 5-Room flat at a loss of $18,000. As his household income is above $1500, he is not able to rent a flat from HDB. He did not have sufficient COV to buy another flat from the open market. He went for help to his MP. After an appeal from his MP, HDB referred him to EM Services, who rented him a 3-Room flat at $1300 per month, which was later reduced upon appeal by his MP to $850. This September, EM Services refused to allow him rent any longer as he had expired his contracted duration of occupancy. When he reached out to some social service agencies, he was advised that they could help by arranging for his children to stay in a shelter but Peter declined this 'help' as it would mean effectively breaking up his family. It was at this point that his son's friend provided a temporary solution for his predicament.

“My son's friend allowed me to rent his house for 3 months. It was very kind of him. But what will I do after the 3 months?” asks Peter. “The government should help Singaporeans like me. But nobody wants to hear my story”, laments Peter.

Peter's story is but just one example that a new classification of 'needy' exists in Singapore. Just like Peter, a substantial number of families in Singapore, with dual income are struggling to make ends meet. We are in the midst of a sociological change where a new class of poor is created. Many families, are in the workforce, many even with dual income; but it is a form of indentured. These people are the emerging faces of the new poor in Singapore. Singapore was built on the belief that “if you work hard, you can make it”. But the ladder to a better life for some hardworking families seems to have been shut down.

Sarah a 36 year old who works as an attendant in a home for the aged says, “the work is emotionally fulfilling. I feel like I am serving my parents who are no more. But it is financially frustrating.” Her husband works as a taxi-driver and together they have a combined income of about $2300. Their HDB flat was repossessed by the banks for non-payment, and now most of their income goes towards renting a 4-Room HDB flat. “I have 3 children and my husbands parents stay with us, so we have to rent a bigger house. After paying $1800 for the rental of the house, I am left with very little for food and other necessities. And during festival seasons, it is even more pressing as my children expect us to buy new clothes and gifts like the other children. I think I am a failure as a parent.”

The runaway prices of HDB houses have made home ownership out of reach for this “new poor”. Home prices have risen faster than wages and salaries for low-to-moderate-income families. While many jobs are still being created, the higher paying jobs are still illusive to the “new poor”, who often lack a diploma or a degree. These people who hold jobs such as administrative assistants, taxi-drivers, laboratory technicians, hawkers and teaching assistants, seem to be chasing an illusive Singapore Dream for a better life.

The unedited version of the write-up in The Online Citizen: Chasing that elusive Singapore Dream

Comments

kwayteowman said…
Hi Ravi,

The KTM likes what he sees in your writings. :-) Genuine concern for the poor and thoughtfulness. :-P

Re: this piece, a question for you: what would you say if the KTM told you that his grandparents lived many years in a much worse condition what you've described? An extended family of 6 adults and 9 children squeezed into what's equivalent to a 4-room flat.

They survived. Their descendants have prospered.

So what should the Govt do for the people you've described? Should we give these people money so that they can lead "better" lives? If you think so, why? and how much?

The KTM has worked with the homeless in the US many years ago too BTW. :-P
ravi4u2 said…
Hi KTM, thanks for the comments. I have lived in similar conditions myself as a child and a teenager. In fact, I was rendered homeless when my father disappeared when I was just 11 and had to stay with my aunt, my sisters in a hostel for girls, while my mom had to rent a room and hold down 3 jobs to support all of us. But that is another story for another day; but that is my background and perhaps the reasons for my convictions for the less fortunate.

Should we give this people money? I believe every eligible citizen should be entitled to a living wage. What is a living wage and how much should it be? My thoughts is that it should be capped to price of renting a room from the open market. Cost of average rental room in the open market-divide by 30-times 100. Why? because no one should spend more than 30% of their income on accomodation. And if earned wages do not equal that amount (for various reasons, including suppressed wages), than it becomes the responsibility of the government to make up the shortfall. But I will probably blog on this as well as shortfalls of workfare sometime later.

I am happy that you have worked with the homeless as well. And by the way, Kway Teow is my favorite food. Where is your stall?
kwayteowman said…
Hi Ravi,

I believe every eligible citizen should be entitled to a living wage.... And if earned wages do not equal that amount (for various reasons, including suppressed wages), than it becomes the responsibility of the government to make up the shortfall.

Tell us more: on what basis do you make this claim. Why should the State pay everyone your "living wage"? Why should the Government make up the shortfall?

Before you start blogging on the shortcomings of workfare, please go and understand what it's supposed to achieve. It is NOT about paying a living wage.

It's actually a counterpart to the foreign worker levy. While the foreign worker levy makes foreigners more costly to employ, workfare makes locals cheaper. The KTM is quite sure that it's quite clear to the bureaucrats (for those who know their economics) that it might not actually add to the income of these folks in the long term.

You also claim that "because no one should spend more than 30% of their income on accommodation". Why not? On what basis do you say 30%? Why not 33% or 26%?

Question: who is paying for everything? Did it occur to you that there are taxpayers like the KTM who do not agree to paying for what you're suggesting? :-P Are you going to brand the KTM "heartless"? :-)
ravi4u2 said…
Tell us more: on what basis do you make this claim. Why should the State pay everyone your "living wage"? Why should the Government make up the shortfall?

I have already given my opinion on that.

Before you start blogging on the shortcomings of workfare, please go and understand what it's supposed to achieve. It is NOT about paying a living wage.

You are just assuming that I do not know anything about 'workfare' here. Wait for my blog.

You also claim that "because no one should spend more than 30% of their income on accommodation". Why not? On what basis do you say 30%? Why not 33% or 26%?

Community Planning and Development which is an organisation that seeks to develop viable communities by promoting integrated approaches that provide decent housing, a suitable living environment, and expand economic opportunities for low and moderate income persons, says that the "accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care."

who is paying for everything? Did it occur to you that there are taxpayers like the KTM who do not agree to paying for what you're suggesting? :-P Are you going to brand the KTM "heartless"? :-)

There are different viable models besides increasing taxes to pay for funding upstream social welfare schemes. And of course everyone is entitled to their opinion and I am not in the business of branding anyone.
kwayteowman said…
Hi Ravi,

Tell us more: on what basis do you make this claim. Why should the State pay everyone your "living wage"? Why should the Government make up the shortfall?

I have already given my opinion on that
.

You misunderstand. The KTM knows your opinion. The KTM wants to understand on what grounds do you make the claim that "the Govt should pay a living wage". If it's something that you "just think is right", that's fine too, but the KTM is hoping for something deeper.

You are just assuming that I do not know anything about 'workfare' here. Wait for my blog.

Not assuming anything. Just kiasu. Looking forward to your piece on workfare. :-)

In any case, the KTM is interested to know that you've gone through some hardship when you were young - but you not only survived, you prospered. So what makes you think that the present system is broken?

You are working with the poor right? The KTM will share with you his not-quite-so-PC view: some of the poor of course need to be helped, but "other don't even know how to be poor and that's why they will always be (and probably deserve to be) poor".

There are problems and poverty is a very complex issue. But managing the problem (solving is OUT OF THE QUESTION) requires us to look at the situation and to call a spade a spade. Political correctness is seriously overrated. You agree? ;-P

When you say there are problems, do you mean that there is no money available or just that people dunno how to get at the money? How familiar are you with the available financial assistance schemes?

There are different viable models besides increasing taxes to pay for funding upstream social welfare schemes.

My view is that the families/relatives should fund/support and the State should only come in as the last resort. You are welcome to disagree.